Rock gets rolling

Visitors to Allan Rock’s Web site are greeted with an image that captures perfectly the tone and spirit of Canada’s Industry Minister. With his hair slicked back, dressed in a handsome brown blazer and matching club tie, he looks as though

he’s just stepped out of Parliament, where cameras, tape recorders and microphones are immediately thrust in his face. This is a man who’s ready to speak, the picture suggests. Now he’s getting ready to do a lot of listening.

On Thursday Rock held a press conference in Ottawa to discuss the next steps in the government’s Innovation Strategy. The action plan appears to be a cross-Canada series of focus groups, a “”Do it Yourself”” kit to start groups to talk among themselves and a Web site to solicit even more feedback. For a complete list of the forums near you, visit the ministry’s Web site.

Getting this dialogue going on such a massive scale is highly appropriate for consensus-loving Canadians. It’s certainly more practical than publishing white papers like Industry Canada’s “”Achieving Excellence,”” which has been more useful than Sleep-Ease in helping me drift off at night since it was released earlier this year. (Sample excerpt: “”Firms are at the centre of innovation, particularly in the development and commercialization of new products and technologies. Many Canadian firms — large, mid-size and small — are developing new products . . . zzz.””)

Those who have watched Canada struggle to promote innovation applaud Rock’s effort but they have concerns about timelines and priorities. A good example is Mike Abramsky, director of software research at Canaccord Capital and the former head of Yahoo Canada and

“”They’re talking about 2010, 2005 goals. Ten years is kind of an eternity in the tech sector,”” he says. “”Broadband is just a small piece of innovation growth. Funding PhD programs in broadband is just insufficient to drive knowledge worker growth and wealth creation in Canada. Real growth comes from innovation via encouraging and incenting growth and success in emerging Canadian IT companies.””

He’s right, of course. The timeline is clearly a way for Rock and those who work for him to keep expectations low and to give everyone involved enough time to try and digest all the advice they’re going to get. This is the other side of the double-edged sword in a focus group approach. Asking for everyone’s ideas is an almost sure way to set yourself up for a tongue-lashing when you inevitably fail to please everyone later.

To its credit, the government is indeed trying to make sure everyone has their say. Rural summits are being planned to get ideas from outside urban centres. A series of youth events is intended to cull ideas from those 25 and under. Action plans are being developed for more than 30 economic sectors. Though some of the timelines are indeed long-term, this listening tour is planned to wrap up faster than any Royal Commission ever has, by the fall of this year.

Any CIO or IT manager who has tried to promote communication between business units for the sake of a technology project will appreciate the courage it takes to open the floodgates. As he picks up where his predecessor Brian Tobin left off, Rock is demonstrating a methodical but inclusive approach to a complex set of issues. Satisfaction is by no means guaranteed, but it behooves anyone who cares about our country’s development to respond to this call.

You’re always taking a chance in a democracy that your voice will be heard, but chances are seldom presented to us so directly. This is a chance for everyone.

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